When Desert Storm commander General Norman Schwarzkopf thanked President Bush for letting the military fight the Gulf war on its own terms, he was expressing an idea deeply felt in the Pentagon for over twenty years: “No more Vietnams.” Both Schwarzkopf and his boss, General Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, experienced combat in Vietnam. Schwarzkopf did two tours, advising South Vietnamese paratroopers and commanding a U.S. infantry battalion. Powell also served two tours and won the Bronze Star for heroism. When Schwarzkopf says “the Vietnam War was a political defeat, but it was not a military defeat,” he is speaking for an entire generation.
But if Desert Storm was a victory because it was not fought as the Vietnam War was fought, could the Vietnam War have been a victory if it had been fought as Desert Storm was? Retired Army Lt. Gen. Phillip B. Davidson thinks so. Davidson was chief intelligence officer for generals William Westmoreland and Creighton Abrams, the top commanders in Vietnam. Before that he had seen combat both in World War II and in Korea. After Vietnam, he taught military history at West Point. His book Vietnam at War (Presidio Press, 1988) is the best one-volume history of the conflict in its entirety, from 1946 to 1975.
His new book, which was written before the Gulf crisis but published after Iraq invaded Kuwait, was intended as a memoir. It throws light on several issues, including the Tet offensive and Westmoreland’s battle with CBS News. However, its final two chapters, “How We Lost the War” and “How We Could Have Won the War,” are likely to be the main attraction for most readers.
According to Davidson, there were two occasions when the United States could have taken decisive action to win the war while a majority of the public still supported armed intervention. The first was February 1965, when it was confirmed that North Vietnam had sent its first full combat division into South Vietnam. The second was after the Tet offensive had been repulsed with heavy Communist losses in 1968. Both instances dramatized the fact that the conflict was not a civil war or an insurgency, but an invasion of the South by the North. The Saigon regime was able to handle the local Viet Cong; it was the regular army of North Vietnam, heavily equipped by the Soviet Union and China, that offered the fatal threat. An effective American strategy should have concentrated on defeating Hanoi by the use of America’s superior power, and not accepted battle on Hanoi’s terms, chasing guerrillas around the jungles in the South.
The campaign outlined by Davidson is very similar to that of Desert Storm. First, an all-out air war aimed at North Vietnamese military targets and supply lines: Hanoi’s ports would be closed by mines and by blockade, and its few railroads, on which supplies were being imported from China, would be cut. The U.S. did drop a lot of ordinance on North Vietnam, but for most of the war critical targets were placed off limits to American pilots. For example, restrictions prevented attacks on enemy airfields from which MIGs were taking off or SAM sites that were under construction (this for fear of hurting Soviet advisors). The port of Haiphong was not bombed and mined until 1972, when Nixon, as Johnson had done, stopped the bombing in exchange for deceptive peace talks. Against Iraq, the U.S. waged Davidson’s kind of campaign from the start without “bombing pauses” and achieved devastating results.
In the end, of course, the war would have had to have been won on the ground. “Existing units of the United States Army and Marine Corps should have been sent to South Vietnam as soon as available,” says Davidson. “Selected reserves of all forces should have been mobilized and prepared for early deployment. . . . When the buildup of the ground forces permitted, a corps-sized force would move into Laos, cut the Ho Chi Minh trail and stay there.” (For a more detailed study of the importance of such a move see The Key to Failure: Laos & the Vietnam War, by Norman B. Hannah.) It might also have been necessary to invade North Vietnam itself, though, as in Iraq, the aim would have been to destroy the North Vietnamese Army, not occupy cities or to take responsibility for running the country. “In short, the American leaders should have accepted the undeniable reality they were at war—a real war.”
It was the failure of President Johnson to take the war seriously that Davidson blames for America’s ultimate defeat. “The brutal truth is that Johnson fought the Vietnam War as a secondary adjunct to his domestic political aims.” Davidson is not alone in his opinion. Doris Kearns, who served on Johnson’s White House staff, wrote in her book Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream that when advised in 1965 that a plan similar to Davidson’s would be needed to win, “Johnson recoiled from this dramatic display of presidential action . . . letting the country know that this was a major war . . . which would demand sacrifices on their part. . . . In deciding against his advisors . . . Johnson had asserted his intention to control the decision-making process.”
Davidson charges LBJ “didn’t want to get the American people into a patriotic furor over the war. If he did this, the people and Congress would insist that he do something to win the war, and there would go the Great Society.” LBJ wished merely to preserve South Vietnam at the minimum short-term cost so as not to divert attention from his domestic programs. That is something to remember when we hear critics of President Bush claim that he is spending too much time on foreign policy, while neglecting domestic affairs.
Another major problem was that Defense Secretary McNamara and his civilian planners had adopted a “counter-insurgency” model that violated basic strategic principles. To Davidson, strategy implies that one “use one’s strength against the enemy’s weaknesses while negating the reverse; seize and hold the initiative.” In Vietnam, the Pentagon was told to accept the enemy’s style of protracted, small-scale war even though “realities dictated that the United States wage a short, savage war, using the maximum force necessary.” The result was that Hanoi won a war fought on its terms.
Before the Gulf war, the United States was headed down this same road again under the rubric “low-intensity conflict.” According to many thinktanks, the post-Cold War world was to be characterized by guerrilla warfare, terrorism, and other small-scale battles. The Pentagon was being urged to abandon its tanks and high-tech weapons and to make draconian cuts in manpower in favor of smaller, “light” units for fighting Third World foes. Since the real reason for this theory’s political popularity was fiscal, it cannot even be considered an honest strategic error. The Gulf war demonstrated the need and the effectiveness of “heavy” combat units that could wage and win wars on America’s terms. However, it remains to be seen whether these military results will change the budget plans of Defense Secretary Cheney, or of Congress.
Even taking Davidson’s most pessimistic estimate of one million troops and several years to win in Vietnam according to his plan, “this price in American casualties, in United States dollars, in time and above all, in internal divisiveness would have been far less than the toll . . . exacted by the faulty strategy.” The strategy of gradual escalation and “limited” war cycled some 2.5 million troops through Vietnam during a seven-year period at the cost of over fifty thousand American lives.
There are two important lessons to be~learned from a comparison of the Vietnam War with the Gulf war: that it costs less to win a war than it does to lose one, and that it matters a great deal who sits in the White House as Commander-in-Chief
[Secrets of the Vietnam War, by Lt. Gen. Phillip B. Davidson (Novato, California: Presidio Press) 214 pp., $18.95]